The World Cup kicked off in Qatar on Sunday with the Muslim nation, which faced a barrage of criticism over its human rights record, staking its reputation on delivering a smooth tournament. The soccer competition has been marred by controversy since Qatar was named host nation in 2010 – a controversial decision that cost Joseph “Seph” Blatter his role as FIFA president, and left his successor, Gianni Infantino, facing mounting backlash. Blatter and former UEFA president Michel Platini left the organization in disgrace following an investigation into the decision to award the competition to Qatar.
On Saturday, the day before the opening match, Infantino tried to defend the Qatari regime, where homosexuality can be punished with the death penalty, women are second-class citizens and thousands of migrant workers have died during the preparations for the games. The FIFA president went so far to say that he understood the concerns of Qatar’s marginalized communities, because he was bullied as a child for having red hair.
“I’m European. I think for what we Europeans have been doing for 3,000 years around the world, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before giving moral lessons to people,” he said at a press conference on Saturday, in which he accused Western nations of “hypocrisy” for expressing concern over Qatar’s human rights record. Unlike the soccer players, who are not allowed to wear any political slogan on their shirts, Infantino can speak his mind. And his speech in defense of Qatar was largely considered the first own goal of the 2022 World Cup.
The FIFA president’s message has added to the controversy surrounding a World Cup that is already unlike any other. Aside from the social critique, this year’s tournament is different for many other reasons: it is taking place in November, instead of summer months, due to the sweltering heat in Qatar – a move which has disrupted national league competitions; players will have to content with extreme humidity; and some of the fans at the event have been paid to attend.
Brazil, with top players Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior and Vinícius Júnior, is the favorite to win. While the French team, which includes Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann, are also tipped to reach the final. This tournament is also the last World Cup of Argentine soccer hero Lionel Messi. While Neymar, Mbappé and Messi may be competing against each other at the World Cup, all three play together in the French club Paris Saint-Germain F.C. (PSG), which is owned by Qatar Sports Investments.
Spain, Germany, England are also expected to make the final rounds. Another team to watch is Portugal, which has players such as Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Rúben Dias – not to mention Cristiano Ronaldo. In such an unusual World Cup, anything can happen.